Getting started making a CLI tool with node.js

So because I have been messing around with node.js a whole lot more lately, and have written a number of posts on it including many npm packages. The thing about nodejs is that it is very much sever side javaScript and as such it is important to know how to make a script file into something that can be used as a stand alone command that can be executed in a command line such as bash. So I thought I would put a post together to help remind me of the few steps to make in order to make a global CLI tool in javaScript with node.js.

The basic process is that I just need to have a nodejs shebang at the top of a javaScript file that will be the main file that will run. In addition to this I just need to have a bin key in my package.json file that will serve as a way to name what the command will be and to point to the file that will run when that command is called. After that I just need to install the nodejs project globally to make it a command that I can run anywhere on my computer.

So in this post I will be going over just the basics of making a simple node CLI tool that is just a hello world starting point, but might not get into depth beyond that when it comes to things like option parsing.

1 - Getting started

I assume that node.js is installed, and that you have basic working knowledge of javaScript and know a thing or two about how to work with a Command Line Interface such as bash in Linux, and most posix systems, and cmd.exe or powerShell in windows. I often use Linux and assume that what I make will still work okay in an Apple Darwin/OSX environment. In any case what I am going over in this post should work okay in any Operating system environment, it is only when using the child process module that you might want to be careful about what commands you are using and how you are using them.

To make a CLI tool with node.js I would start by making a new folder in a place where I get projects done such as the home folder, or my documents folder, or what have you. At which point I would make it the current working directory, and set up a new node project by calling npm init to make my package.json file for the new project.

$ mkdir cli-tool
$ cd cli-tool
$ npm init

The next steps will involve setting a bin name for the command line tool, and start a main index.js file for it, so lets get to doing that.

2 - Adding the bin entry to package.json for the command name

One of the most important steps to making a script global is setting the name that is to be called from the command line, and the script to be called when doing so. This is done by adding a bin entry to package.json file of my project.

So insert this anywhere into the package.json file.

"bin": {
"cli-tool" : "./index.js"

This means that I will be calling my tool like this

$ cli-tool

and a file called index.js is what will be called when doing so. I do what I can to make sure that I am not using a name that is all ready in use with the operating system that I am using by taking the time to be familiar with what is all ready there. It also stands to reason that it would be a good idea to make sure that I am not using a name that is used by another popular project in general when it comes to the possibly that other people might use my command line tool.

3 - The node.js shebang

I have wrote a post on the node.js shebang a few months ago, but did not get into detail about how to make a full featured CLI tool using node.js. In short it is just something that I need to place at the very top of a script to help state the binary that needs to be used in oder to run the script. Because I am using javaScript as my programing environment, I need to use the node.js shebang that looks like this:

#!/usr/bin/env node

4 - The index.js file

So yes I will want a JavaScript file called index.js in the root name space of the project for starters I might do something like just log the message hello world to the standard output of the console.

#!/usr/bin/env node
console.log('hello CLI!');

This is just a getting started post after all, in a real project I would want to have at least a few dependencies to work with that have to do with things like option parsing and so forth. However I do not want to get to deep into those kinds of things here, and the kind of packages I would add would change from one project to another depending on what the tool does.

So now that I have my starting npm package folder, a binary name set in the package.json file, and a starting file to run for the command, the next thing to do is to make it a global command.

5 - Making the script global

So while still in the working directory of the project I just need to use npm to install the project globally by calling npm install and making sure to use the global flag like so:

npm install -g

Now I can cd to any path in my CLI and call cli-tool to get ‘hello-CLI!’ logged to the console. Of course in order to start doing some things more interesting it is going to take more than just that, but this is the depth of just getting started with making a node Command Line Interface tool. In rest of this post I might just start touching base on a few more things that come to mind when it comes to making this kind of project with javaScript.

6 - Option parsing in node.js

I will not get into detail with it here, but I have written a post on a dependency that I use to help with option parsing called nopt. If you want to go vanilla process.argv is what is of interest when it comes to doing something involving arguments accepted from the CLI.

console.log(process.argv); // what arguments there are to work with

7 - Styling terminal output

For this I have found chalk be sure to check that out if you want to do anything with color in the console.

8 - Looping over files recursively

I have wrote a post on an npm package called node-dir. It allows for working with the content of a bunch of files that are placed in a complex file structurer. I can set a match pattern using regular expressions, and I find it more useful then just using readDir in the fs module of node itself.

9 - Conclusion

Maybe I will make some more examples that do something a bit more interesting. For now I guess I will just reference some posts that I have written before that are relevant to this sort of thing. Of course I have many posts on node.js that are worth checking out.